- Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature between the Wars: A New Pandora’s Box
Divided into two parts, "Nationalism in the Harlem Renaissance" and "Internationalism and African American Writing in the 1930s," Anthony Dawahare's study "challenges a reigning paradigm in black literary studies that privileges the cultural nationalist writings of the Harlem Renaissance" (xii). During the Harlem Renaissance, African American anthologists, especially Alain Locke in The New Negro (1925), did not include Marxist and socialist writings, preferring a nationalist position that had linkages to Americanism and capitalism. The text considers all nationalisms as detrimental because of the possibility of fascism, but it is arguable whether the literary nationalism of the Harlem Renaissance would have led to the extremes of fascism.
Dawahare covers such major figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright as well as the African Blood Brotherhood, the black leftist organization of the twenties. He views Marxism as a panacea, which if accorded its rightful place would have led to a more progressive present-day African American literature. Marxism, however, had certain failures: "their errors mostly resulted from losing sight of the class structure of their society and the need to consider all political and cultural questions" (139).
Dawahare examines the Communist position on "nationalization of culture" and the "Negro Question," tracing the varying acceptance of black cultural expressions such as jazz (105). Langston Hughes's radical period of the 1930s is given detailed treatment, and Hughes's poetry in this vein is seen as superior to his 1920s nationalist writings. However, Dawahare resorts to speculation as to Hughes's "rationale for [End Page 136] virtually abandoning African American expressive forms" in his poetry from 1932 to 1938 (105). It should be noted that Hughes also wrote dramas during his radical period, some left-wing, others evoking black cultural expression. Dawahare cites selectively to prove his conclusion but avoids Hughes's nationalist protest poetry of the 1960s.
The study uses Richard Wright to present the strongest case against nationalism, finding that in "A Blueprint for Negro Writing," Wright did not critically interpret the appeal of nationalism to black writers. Dawahare could have more closely explained the reasons for Wright's departure from the Left as well as Ralph Ellison's ultimate disaffection with the Party to show the practical problems of race and Party control that arose during the 1930s.
The "Afterword" shows the author's disappointment with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie McKay for not showing in their 1997 anthology of African American writing "the importance of the Bolshevik Revolution to black American writers" (135). Dawahare's conclusion moves to contemporary issues of "9/11" and its aftermath, which he also interprets in relation to "ideologies of race and nation" (140). Although his observations are insightful, they are somewhat anachronistic based on his primary focus.
On the whole, Dawahare's complete rejection of nationalism conflates its forms into a kind of Manichean binary. Had his study gone further, he might have addressed the joining of nationalism and Marxism found in black writers such as Amiri Baraka. Nevertheless, Dawahare's cogently argued text for inclusion is an important contribution to studies of the left, the interwar years, and African American literature.