- Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922–1963
Most scholars of African-American culture have known that the Soviet Union held a certain attraction for black writers and intellectuals during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Yet few have done the kind of detailed archival work necessary to uncover the complex ways in which African-American writers both shaped and were shaped by Soviet culture. And none—until Kate A. Baldwin—has shown how such archival work, combined with theoretical analysis of the reciprocal lines of influence between the USSR and African-American writers, can radically and productively reframe our understanding of black modernism and internationalism.
African-American intellectuals were drawn to Soviet models of internationalism as a potential alternative or solution to US racism, but, at the same time, these writers were critical of Soviet tendencies to reduce the interplay of race, gender, and sexuality to questions of class. For Baldwin, studying the ambiguity of African-American responses to the USSR (and vice versa) is crucial to understanding the persistent emphasis on internationalism in African-American cultural production during the period from 1922 through 1962. In Soviet history, this span begins with the meeting of the Third International in Moscow and finishes with the decline of Khrushchev; in the African-American literary tradition, it starts with the Harlem Renaissance and ends with the death of Du Bois. Bringing these two seemingly disparate chronologies together illustrates the striking connections between US responses to the Soviet Union and American attitudes toward race. It also helps shed much-needed light on both the appeal of Soviet ideology to African-American intellectuals and [End Page 479] the Soviet fascination with these same intellectuals as representative African figures.
The first and second chapters of Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain examine works by Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, writers who traveled extensively in the USSR, were initially convinced of the benefits of Soviet Internationalism, but who both later rejected communism. Here Baldwin's archival work and analytical abilities combine to produce several insightful readings. She uncovers essays and short stories McKay wrote for a Russian audience that are significant not only because they "contest his later and better-known version of his Soviet journey," but also because these texts "elaborate on 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" (29). Moreover, Baldwin demonstrates that it was precisely this interrelatedness that McKay's Soviet readers and reviewers tended to ignore. Rather than acknowledge the complexity of these factors, they instead sought to reduce them to issues of class and to reduce McKay himself to what Baldwin refers to as a "stand-in African"—an idea of the representative Negro that "seemed to offer a more easily understood alternative to the racially imbued political instability of Africa" (23). The chapter on Hughes likewise uncovers previously unknown or understudied material, including accounts of a trip to the Soviet Union that he later removed from his memoir. The removed material includes several references to the unveiling of Muslim Uzbek women—references Baldwin links in revealing ways to the construction of black American male subjectivity in Hughes's later work.
The subjects of chapters 3 and 4 are, respectively, W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Unlike McKay and Hughes, these two did not renounce their early affinities for the USSR, and, as Baldwin points out, both were punished for it. Examining Du Bois's unpublished manuscript Russia and America and his later autobiographical writing, Baldwin provides a nuanced look at how the politics of literary and cultural history have functioned to occlude the dissident, radical elements of Du Bois's relation to Soviet ideology. In her study of Robeson, Baldwin examines the various strategies, including the performance of folk ballads, Robeson employed to counter both the anticommunist attacks leveled at him in the US and his...