New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars

New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars

by William Maxwell

Paperback(New Edition)

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Howard "Stretch" Johnson, a charismatic Harlemite who graduated from Cotton Club dancer to Communist Party youth leader, once claimed that in late 1930s New York "75% of black cultural figures had Party membership or maintained regular meaningful contact with the Party." He stretched the truth, but barely. In a broad-ranging, revisionary account of the extensive relationship between African-American literary culture and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, William J. Maxwell uncovers both black literature's debt to Communism and Communism's debt to black literature—reciprocal obligations first incurred during the Harlem Renaissance.

Juxtaposing well-known and newly rediscovered works by Claude McKay, Andy Razaf, Mike Gold, Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nelson Algren, Maxwell maintains that the "Old," Soviet-allied Left promoted a spectrum of exchanges between black and white authors, genres, theories, and cultural institutions. Channels opened between radical Harlem and Bolshevik Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature. Claude McKay's 1922-23 pilgrimage to the Soviet Union, for example, usually recalled as a lighthearted adventure in radical tourism, actually jumpstarted the Comintern's controversial nation-centered program for Afro America. Breaking from studies governed by Cold War investments and pivoting on the Great Depression, Maxwell argues that Communism's rare sustenance for African-American initiative—not a seduction of Depression-scarred innocents—brought scores of literary "New Negroes" to the Old Left.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231114257
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 06/17/1999
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

William J. Maxwell is assistant professor of English and an affiliate of the Afro-American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Black and Red All Over?
1. Kitchen Mechanics and Parlor Nationalists: Andy Razaf Black Bolshevism, and Harlem's Renaissance
2. Home to Moscow: Claude McKay's The Negroes in America and the Race of Marxist Theory
3. The Proletarian as New Negro; the New Negro as Proletarian: Mike Gold Meets Claude McKay
4. Scottsboro Delimited: White Bait Red Triangles, and Interracialism Between Men
5. Black Belt/Black Folk: The End(s) of the Richard Wright—Zora Neale Hurston Debate
6. Native Sons Divorce: A Conclusion

What People are Saying About This

Barbara Foley

A highly significant contribution to the field of African-American studies, as well as to revisionary scholarship on the relation of writers to the left, and, more generally, on U.S. modernism. Maxwell's argument is bold and original, and New Negro, Old Left will make its mark, generating controversy and stimulating further scholarship.

Barbara Foley, Rutgers University, and author of Radical Representations : Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941

Gerald Early

Bill Maxwell has written an incisive and inventive study of the intersection of African American letters, the act and meaning of cultural production, and the force of leftist politics in the American 1920s and 30s. New Negro, Old Left is smart, energetic, and richly argued, and Maxwell is a talented literary historian and critic.

Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture

Mark Naison

New Negro, Old Left is a brilliant intervention into debates on the role of Communism in shaping African-American literature. The book is valuable not only for what it tells us about the interaction between African-Americans and the Left, but for how it forces us to think about race and culture in a more creative and flexible way.

Mark Naison, Fordham University, and author of Communists in Harlem During the Depression

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