- Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928–1937 by Meredith L. Roman
[End Page 267]
Meredith Roman’s Opposing Jim Crow examines Soviet state-sponsored antiracism in the interwar years by highlighting party and trade-union officials’ focus on the American system of racial apartheid. Unlike other works of Soviet antiracism that focus on the lived experiences of African Americans in the Soviet Union, Roman seeks to present Soviet antiracism “as a discursive field in which its themes, images, and manifestations are glorified, redefined, and contested by various individuals and organizations—for an array of reasons—but with the same objective: representing the Soviet Union as a society where racism was absent” (p. 3). While she claims to not focus on the lives of black Americans in the Soviet Union, Roman does highlight how their very presence in the country allowed Soviet leaders to propagandize antiracism and promote the Soviet Union as home to a truly raceless society, unlike the bourgeoisie capitalist United States. Roman argues that the black male body, much less than the African American men themselves, were the symbols of Soviet antiracism and American racial apartheid. Dark-skinned black men were more authentic in the Soviet media and propaganda campaigns, while African American women were absent from the official record, even though black women were present in the Soviet Union at the time.
Relying on trade-union publications and Soviet newspapers, as well as holdings at the State Archive of the Russian Federation and American State Department files, Opposing Jim Crow successfully illustrates the desire of the Soviets to project an antiracist society. Beginning with the 1930 trial of two white American workers who assaulted Robert Robinson, an African American worker, and including a sustained discussion of the Scottsboro Boys, Roman complicates official Soviet antiracist policy. Through the Robinson incident and the erasure of black men as individuals, Roman proves that while the Soviet Union was an antiracist society, it was not free of paternalism, as the Communist Party spoke for and about black men in the Soviet Union and the United States, crafting an image of the downtrodden southern black, freed socially, economically, and culturally in [End Page 268] the Soviet Union. The voices and biographies of men like Robert Robinson were erased, replaced by a Party-approved narrative. Most importantly, according to Roman, the Soviet antiracist campaign was a language tool that taught Soviet youth and citizens how to speak and act antiracist on the world stage, greatly benefiting future Soviet leaders like Nikita Khrushchev. By 1938, as Roman makes clear in the concluding chapters of her monograph, the Soviet Union turned away from fighting American racism to a focusing on antifacism and the rising threat of Nazi Germany, but it did not abandon the language associated with its interwar propaganda.
Opposing Jim Crow is a clear and vibrant read, suitable for upper-level undergraduate and graduate education. Roman’s use of novel source material and the interweaving of biography and state policy make for a rich narrative. However, Roman’s work assumes that the reader knows a great deal about the Soviet state and its operations, making the use of this book in a transnational class difficult. Although Roman asserts that she is uninterested in the “hidden transcripts” of Soviet citizens’ response to antiracism propaganda, a discussion of the effects of the party’s campaigns would have added depth to the study. Moreover, a more sustained discussion of the absences of black women in Soviet antiracist policy could add to the strong gender argument already present in the work.
Amanda Higgins is a PhD candidate in American history at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. Her dissertation project investigates the intersections of Black Power and anti-Vietnam War activism.