Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963

Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963

by Kate A. Baldwin, Donald E. Pease

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ISBN-13: 9780822383833
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/26/2002
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Kate A. Baldwin is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

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Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963
By Kate A. Baldwin


Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0822329905

Chapter One

"Not at All God's White People": McKay and the Negro in Red

What is a Russian? A Russian is one who is not an American. We agree. -Gertrude Stein, "This One Is Serious"

In McKay's 1928 novel Home to Harlem, the author's alter ego ponders his relationship to writing. He asks himself how he survived the preceding period of world upheaval to outlive his literary "masters" who "marched with flags and banners ... into the vast international cemetery" of the twentieth century. The character wonders if he could, after all, create art: "Art around which vague incomprehensible words and phrases stormed? What was Art anyway?" In answer to this monumental question, McKay's narrator offers up a conspicuous model: "Only the Russians of the late era seemed to stand up like giants in the new. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev." These Russian writers stood the test of time because they were preserved by "the soil of life"; "they were so saturated, so deep-down rooted in it," the narrator proclaims admiringly.

McKay's description of the particularity of Russian literature uses the terminology of a school of nineteenth-century Russian writers and intellectuals who adoptedthe moniker "pochvenniki" ("native soil thinkers") from the word pochva (soil). Led by such figures as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Apollon A. Grigor'ev, pochvennichestvo was founded in part as a response to the Westernization of Russia that began with the reforms of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. Against the mounting influence of European culture, pochvennichestvo sought to reconcile Westernism with the communalism of the folk. It was believed that Russia was uniquely poised to conduct such a reconciliation, based in part on an enduring momentum of populist messianism that mandated that Russians were positioned to leap past their European counterparts on the path of historical progress.

McKay's predilection for Russian literature "of the late era" indicates that the Russian model of particularism favored by Dostoevsky offered him a compelling counterpart to the European example. By European convention, Africans and Russians alike were excluded as nonhistoric peoples, marginalized in the narrative of world progress and civilization. McKay may have been drawn to a Russian prototype as a counter to enforced peripheralization by Western philosophies of identity and Enlightenment thinking, to which formative differentiations between white and black, historic and nonhistoric peoples were not incidental. But what is most interesting about McKay's articulation of admiration for Russian literature is not so much the fact that it establishes a counter to European standards but the cross-racial allegiances it establishes in so doing.

Suggesting an interracial, cross-national affinity between two distinct, arguably non-European literary models, the passage anticipates a caution that David Lloyd and Abdul JanMohamed pose in their work on "minority discourse." Acknowledging that subjects often respond to enforced nonidentity by transforming that position into a positive one so as to critique the mechanisms of domination, the authors advise that

the nonidentity experienced by minorities as the oppressive effects of Western philosophies of identity is the strongest reason that a rigorously critical minority discourse, in its positive transformation of the discourses emerging from that nonidentity, should not merely fall back on the oppositional affirmation of an essential ethnic or gender identity. In minority discourse the abstract philosophical questions of essence and ethics are transformed into questions of practice: the only meaningful response to the questions "what is or ought to be" has to be the question "what is to be done"?

The phrase used by Lloyd and JanMohamed to close their sentence-"what is to be done"-is silently borrowed from the title of a novel by Cherneshevsky, the nineteenth-century Russian populist who publicly compared (and denounced) Russian serfdom and U.S. slavery. Lenin admired Cherneshevsky's novel so much that he adopted its title for his own 1905 essay outlining the party's role in communist revolution. In spite of the fact that they certainly would have objected to the term "minority" to describe their literature, Russian thinkers were contemplating the political efficacy of "minority discourse" long before contemporary criticism provided the nomenclature. A critic of Russian literature, Peter Steiner, elaborates on the uneasy relationship between Russian and Western literary paradigms that may have necessitated such awareness. He argues, "Based on a Western model and functioning in a non-Western milieu, Russian literature was perceived from its very inception as an instrument of social engineering." Steiner's words suggest that because of a perceived difference between model and function, Russian thinkers used culture as a means of fomenting social change. In other words, it was the dualism inherent in the very idea of Russian literature that linked it to an ability to conduct social transformation. On the point of literature's social utility, thinkers as philosophically opposed as Dostoevsky and Cherneshevsky could agree. During the years following the revolution, a Marxist rescripting of populist rhetoric into a folk-based workers' culture benefited from this association. Soviet engineering relied on a sense of cultural doubleness-both Western and non-Western-and likewise enabled both a means of critiquing the exclusivity of Western standards and asserting cultural legitimacy. This approach appealed to black intellectuals and writers who sought to distinguish the particularity of "Negro" cultural patterns, and in some cases, to use the expressive cultures of the folk as a fount of authenticating Negro culture.

But McKay's praise of Russian literature indicates that McKay intuited not only an affinity between Russian literature's relationship to European cultural margins and his own but that he believed this affinity had everything to do with the political potential of black art, of black culture's ability to do the work of "social engineering." Cherneshevsky's novel, subtitled "Tales about New People," was, after all, largely concerned with exploring the sexual politics inherent to a revamping of society along socialist lines, and its author firmly believed that the structural faults within U.S. capitalism could be traced to its ties to slavery. Although Lenin's tract was intended as an homage to Cherneshevsky, he nonetheless marginalized the issues of sex in his essays, apparently preferring to relegate women's issues to the narrativizing concerns of novelistic discourse. Yet just as Lenin removed sex from his essays, McKay's Soviet work demonstrated how thinking through the question of an alternative socialist future necessitated rethinking the relationships among gender, race, and nation, how sexual politics were intrinsic to the construction of a new society. On this point McKay's work, in both essay and story form, is poised to reassert the often-overlooked link between "what is to be done" as a political slogan and attention to literal as well as figurative concerns of sexual politics. McKay's Soviet writings help put the interrelatedness of sex and race back into Lenin's, and indeed more recent, theorizations of socialist reform. McKay's invocation of Russian literature suggests that the tensions involved in a perceived perpetual dualism were the fount of a drive not toward essentialist retrenchment (the "oppositional affirmation" of identity) but a cultural practice that could sustain difference. In other words, McKay's engagement with Russia produced theories about using culture not only as a tool of internationalism but also interracialism.

Six years prior to the publication of Home to Harlem, the capacity of a Russian model for social transformation had intrigued McKay so much that he was drawn to the Soviet Union for a period of seven months, from November 1922 to June 1923. At the onset of his trip, the promise of the international for McKay lay as much in the ability to create a new kind of art, one that could transgress national boundaries, as it did in the ability to create new kinds of social and political affiliations, ones that took shape outside the nation as they entered the space of new, internationalist formations. Covering the Third International for the Negro press, McKay, a Communist supporter at the outset of his trip, turned to Russia as a model space for exploring the possibilities of international aspirations, both literary and political. And while in Russia, he solidified his thinking about internationalism's potential on both fronts. McKay's assessment of the promise of internationalism as a political goal along with a related interrogation of U.S. investments in the idea of racial purity and domestic containment appeared in two texts, both of which emerged from McKay's engagement with a Soviet paradigm of anti-Westernism: a group of essays titled Negroes in America (1923) and a collection of three stories titled Trial by Lynching (1925). Written for a Russian audience, these works were rigorously critical of the hegemonic American national identity emerging out of World War I, and directed this criticism most emphatically toward U.S. anti-internationalism and the false notions of racial purity that bolstered this domestic stance.

In spite of McKay's eventual rejection of Soviet Communism, his Russian work from the early 1920s offers terrain in which to see intersections between his nationalist and internationalist politics, and his aesthetic and social aspirations. Yet because these works have been difficult to access-both because of Soviet archive policies and the peculiar fact that McKay's English manuscripts for the two books written in Russia have been lost-generally they have been discounted. With the exception of one document located in the Comintern files, the closest material to an original document for the bulk of these pieces are Russian translations of the original manuscripts of Negroes in America and Trial by Lynching, published in 1923 and 1925, respectively, under the titles Negry v Amerike and Sudom Lincha. As McKay's work from the early 1920s makes clear, such linguistic interracialism has a close affinity to reproductive interracialism-both challenge the notion of a "pure" source through which the authentic black history or black body should appear. It was precisely McKay's interest in the boundary-challenging cultural forms put forth by the promise of Soviet internationalism as by definition a multiracial, multilingual project that led McKay to Russia in the first place, and while in Russia, to write a series of essays and stories about the American Negro. Discounting the importance of McKay's Russian texts reflects a similar logic of discounting the international impulse and the related critique of American mechanisms of whiteness put forth in these works.

But Negroes in America and Trial by Lynching are significant not simply because they contest McKay's later and better-known version of his Soviet journey recorded in A Long Way from Home. They stand independently as texts that elaborate his keen perception of the interrelatedness of race, class, and gender oppressions within the emerging currents of a redefined American national identity following World War I. And together they perform an ambivalent repositioning of black self-determination in the South, leaving open the question of McKay's shaping influence on what emerged from the later 1928 Comintern congress as the "black belt thesis"-the theory that the U.S. South made up a primarily black nation and could under this guise be revolutionized to become a member of a global Soviet. Twelve years after his visit, McKay indicated his assumption that his Russian work spawned a shaping influence over Communist policy toward black Americans. But McKay's assertion should be approached with caution. As indicated by the Comintern files, Negroes in America was heavily indebted to others with more intimate connections to Moscow, such as Otto Huiswood and Sen Katayama, who addressed similar questions. While to be sure McKay took pleasure in the fact that he could be a representative of the oppressed Negro for the Bolsheviks, McKay's ability to take up this position was enabled by a Russian tradition of academic inquiry into Africa, a prehistory to McKay's visit that has not been taken previously into consideration. While McKay was without a doubt a key figure, his position on the resolution on the Negro question-the black belt thesis-becomes indefinite when seen in light of the stories in Trial by Lynching. The fact that Trial by Lynching links in no uncertain terms the issues of racial and sexual emancipation leads one to question Soviet attentiveness to McKay's postulates. The year of the Soviet endorsement of the black belt thesis, 1928, also spelled the end of open discussion on the place of sexual politics within socialism. Soviet willingness to commit to women's rights on paper, but not in policy is partly related to the iconic status of McKay in Russia. McKay's representativeness of "the new Negro" relied on a privileged relationship between masculinity and the iconography of the "new Soviet." Just as this new Soviet relied heavily on an idealization of masculinity as representative, so too did McKay's link to "the Negro" establish the Negro as male. This idea of a representative masculinity was reinforced by Soviet doctrine that subordinated women's issues to those of class. McKay's challenge to this kind of gender inequity as intimately related to the question of Negro self-determination emerges in both the essays and stories.

Seen in this light, Negroes in America and Trial by Lynching render unstable the conclusion that McKay was an unambiguous supporter of the notion of black self-determination in the U.S. South. But more important, Trial by Lynching extends the critique of whiteness offered by McKay in Negroes in America specifically to the visual economy of subjectivity within white supremacy. The stories shift the emphasis of McKay's intervention in Soviet conceptions of American national identity from debates about black self-determination to the inextricability of racial, sexual, and national boundaries in the American imagination. Reading the essays without the stories provides only a partial view of this imagination, and the suggestiveness of the stories is not evident in the often rough analyses provided by McKay's essays. This is not to say that the propaganda propounded by Negroes in America was standard Soviet fare, however. Reading the essays alongside Trial by Lynching reveals how the stories elaborate on the theoretical claims of Negroes in America by exhibiting how such claims are linked with specific figures of representation. McKay's depictions of black life in the United States infiltrate Soviet dogma with abstract formulations of identity, selfhood, and the interrelated configurations of racial and sexual difference. The related symbolic politics at work in both, then, not only permeates the barrier between fiction and nonfiction, the implicit line between Chernevshevsky's novel and Lenin's essay, it also offers an alternative to the white, male-centered accounts of political modernity.

McKay's trip to the Soviet Union occurred during a period of political and artistic experimentation and openness due, in part, to the New Economic Policy (NEP), launched in July 1921 and ending with the first Five-Year Plan of 1928. Distinguished as an era of broad-mindedness and relative tolerance, the NEP years reintroduced to Russia a contained capitalism, and during this period images of the United States abounded in film, journalism, and other routes of consumer culture. Although the United States continued to be condemned as the paragon of evil capitalism, American methods of industrialization and technological advance were supported and admired. Public receptiveness to McKay must be seen in the context of a departure from socialism, the opening of Soviet doors to an influx of market-driven, American images of race and gender, and the waning interest in advancing the cause of Soviet women's rights. At the same time, McKay's warm reception by the Soviets should be approached from a vantage point that admits Russia's own troubled relationship to European paradigms of "whiteness." Indeed, the Soviet Union of 1922 was ripe territory for McKay's desires to establish an alternative to Euroamerican norms. Russian philosophers and intellectuals had for nearly a century been immersed in contesting German idealist philosophy in which they, alongside the peoples of Africa, were positioned as nonhistoric peoples. As Dale Peterson has argued, a perceived exclusion from European cognitive traditions sparked in nineteenth-century Russian philosophers and writers a counterclaim based in an equally valid and yet different sense of self articulated through "soul." Peterson connects the ramifications of this outsider status accorded to Russians by German idealist philosophy to those expressed by African American intellectuals of similarly sequenced periods, demonstrating a solidarity between these groups rejected by the West's social order, between "similar strivings of Russians and African Americans to give visibility and voice to a native culture that had been hidden from view and held in bondage to narrow Western standards of civility and literacy." Peterson's work is important for my purpose not only because these rich parallels were previously left unexamined but because he brings together distinct, yet affiliated experiences of subjugation that lay the groundwork for the terrain of receptiveness to McKay that the Soviets offered him in 1922.


Excerpted from BEYOND THE COLOR LINE AND THE IRON CURTAIN by Kate A. Baldwin Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Demand for a New Kind of Person: Black Americans and the Soviet Union, 1922-1963

1. “Not at All God’s White People”: McKay and the Negro in Red

2. Between Harlem and Harlem: Hughes and the Ways of the Veil

3. Du Bois, Russia, and the “Refusal to Be ‘White’”

4. Black Shadows across the Iron Curtain: Robeson’s Stance between Cold War Cultures

Epilogue: The Only Television Hostess Who Doesn’t Turn Red




What People are Saying About This

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

In Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain, Kate Baldwin has presented the hitherto ignored Soviet response to African American intellectuals and cultural workers. This is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand the intellectual and political range of African America in the twentieth century.
— Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present

Eric Lott

A blockbusting study of the Soviet Union's significance for African American literary and cultural self-fashioning in the twentieth century, researched with an unusually daunting prodigiousness and conceived with a truly geopolitical theoretical intelligence. In attending to questions of travel, of political identities-in-formation, and of subjectivity's ever-changing subject, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain locates a dialectic of displacement in which an imaginary and actual elsewhere-in this case none other than post-revolutionary Russia-furnishes a space to rearticulate crucial aspects of social and cultural life at home.
— Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

Gerald Horne

A significant book that introduces the Soviet Union to the 'Black Atlantic' model of modernism. By examining the works of writers such as Du Bois, McKay, Hughes, and Robeson, the author explains the impact of the Soviet Union on African Americans. This kind of analysis is new-and vital-to literary studies.
— Gerald Horne, author of Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists

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